Monday, November 14, 2011

First Impressions (thesis excerpt)

(Exactly one year ago yesterday, I made my first visit to a Nyahbinghi, also known as a Groundation, a Sabbath service for the Rastafari of the Nyahbinghi Order.  These are some reflections I wrote at the end of the day, along with some thoughts I had later on in light of further research.  Included in the third chapter of my thesis, "Methods and Approaches," this story sheds some light on how I undertook reasoning with the Jamaican Rastafari, given the little up-close experience I had previously gathered with this culture.)

My first day on the island of Jamaica was full of unexpected adventure and conversation. I woke up early on Saturday to pick up my guide, Bongo Shephan Fraser, and we drove out into the countryside for the Sabbath service at a relatively new Nyahbinghi camp. Along the way, Shephan explained to me that this Nyahbinghi congregation has only been regularly observing the Sabbath for about three years, though there has been initiative among the Ancient Council (administrative board of elders) for several years to encourage the Rastafari to gather every Saturday for worship, reasoning, and readings from the Bible and the speeches of Haile Selassie. His Majesty was a strict observer of the Sabbath, Shephan explained, so the Rastafari people must follow his example by abstaining from work whenever possible, drumming, chanting, meditating, and studying holy texts throughout the day. Many members of this particular congregation typically fast for most of the day, according to Shephan; however, I was relieved to hear that we would walk down the road for some lunch when the bredren took a break from worship in the tabernacle.

Upon arriving at the Nyahbinghi center, a friendly Dreadlocks Rasta opened the gate for us and greeted us with what sounded like a formal salutation, reciprocated by Shephan (I was still having a great deal of trouble understanding the native accent and patois at this point). Red, gold, and green flags, matching the gate and the clothing of several nearby people, were flapping in the breeze as we drove up the hill to the tabernacle. We parked next to a building with the faces of Selassie and Empress Mennen painted on the front, and within moments of entering this cool, unlit structure, I was sold a tam, but told not to wear it inside of the tabernacle. Only a few people were nearby, as no drumming had begun yet; but those who witnessed my arrival immediately began shouting out names to me, mistaking me for their other light-skinned friends. When they realized I was a new face, they enthusiastically welcomed me to their camp, very interested to know why their priest had brought me along. One man approached me with a coconut in one hand and a machete in the other, asking me if I was thirsty. As I had never drunk straight from a coconut before, I made a mess all over my shirt, which earned me a few friendly laughs. Still, it was a refreshing and welcoming start to my first of two Sabbath visits.

Three priests were among the first people I met that day. We only spoke briefly before the service began, but our conversation seemed promising. When I mentioned that I was a reggae musician, they asked me if I liked Bob Marley. As it turned out, these priests “taught Bob Marley everything him knew about Rastafari,” and were close with the legendary Mortimer Planno, whose gravesite I had the privilege of visiting, thanks to these elders. I tried to summarize my research topic for these priests, Rastafari who have been active in the movement long enough to remember the days of frequent police brutality and persecution of the Dreadlocks. Their initial, firm response was one that I would hear in every one of my interviews: Rastafari accepts all, regardless of color or creed. Feeling the need to explain a bit further, I cited some examples of lyrics and moments in history where certain Rastafarians expressed a distrust or resentment of the white man. Rather than assume that this is racism responding to racism, I said, I came to seek a better understanding of these attitudes, especially as they are manifested in ideas about music. Seeing that I had done a bit of research on the movement, not just on reggae, these priests expressed their excitement for helping me to learn more.

A few bredren had been drumming in the tabernacle for several minutes when Shephan said it was time for him to tend to his responsibilities. While he walked toward the drums and began chanting, one of the elders motioned for me to come and sit with him. Bongo Roy was well into his eighties, locks in a net and tucked into his pants, his cane occasionally tapping the floor along with the heartbeat of the fundeh drums. I joined him on the bench and followed his lead throughout the service, standing and sitting at the appropriate moments. As several bredren entered the tabernacle, an open, round structure with benches along the perimeter and a decorated altar in the center, many of them greeted me with a smile and a handshake, or sometimes a slight bow with the right hand over the heart. After some time, the chanting stopped, a creed or prayer of some sort was recited, a few announcements were made, and then Shephan introduced me and asked that I say a few words about the purpose of my visit. I kept it brief and simple, preferring to be more of a passive observer for my first experience of Rasta worship. I even left my camera in its case that day, in order to absorb this occasion with my complete attention.

The bass drum is one of three drums in the kete system of Nyahbinghi drumming.
Like this one, they are often decorated with images of Haile Selassie and Empress Menen.

A few things were no surprise to me: the drums, the chanting, the sacramental herb, the laid-back atmosphere where worshipers could come and go rather freely, and the fact that, out of the approximately thirty people present, only two were female, and only two were children. Most of what I saw and heard during the service, however, was pleasantly surprising. The Psalms were read with reverence, although there was a brief stir when one of the bredren raised a question over which psalm was supposed to be read that day. And while it is no secret that “queens” have a traditionally quieter role in the movement, two of these psalms were read by a woman, and two were read by the child next to her. These same two also participated in a discussion on a selected speech of His Majesty, consulting a dictionary whenever there was a question over the meaning of a word. The priest read Selassie’s speech line by line, stopping after each sentence to ask for thoughts, and this repeatedly led to lively debate, bredren standing up from their benches to approach someone they disagreed with, or to address all encircling them. Two of the priests present, several years senior to the priest then reading the speech, said something like, “Read the whole speech first, then go back and discuss line by line.” This suggested to me that there may be some traditions that the older generation holds more strictly to, that there is not so much universal agreement on; more importantly, however, it shows the high regard that the Rastafari hold for the speeches of Haile Selassie, the words of Jah Himself.

The topic of this particular speech was a great one for me, as a student of anthropology, to hear upon my first full exposure to Rastafari reasoning. Most Rastas I had met in the past have objected to the term “religion,” stating that “way of life,” “movement,” or “culture” are preferable words. So I felt the need to tread lightly in my academic shoes, careful not to use words that might be accurate in Western categories, but might also demonstrate a lack of respect for my hosts. But this speech was one in which Selassie expresses the importance of religion for all of mankind, and the teaching priest that day was well aware that this term would possibly confound some of the bredren in the tabernacle. He asked for the child to consult the dictionary and to read aloud the definition of “religion.” After this was discussed, he asked the congregation if they thought that the Rastafari faith fit this definition. One man replied, “Yes, but if you ask most Rastafari, they would say this is not religion.” The priest countered that it is not the place of any Rasta to speculate on the opinions of another (this was an important sound for me to hear that day, as my research deals with speculation on the opinions of others concerning the opinions of others). Voices rose in volume and intensity for a few moments, one man walking around the tabernacle and gesticulating while arguing his point in an accent too thick for me to decipher. But before long, the bredren came to agree that, while many Rastafari throughout the movement’s history have openly rejected the term “religion,” it is a worthy label if His Majesty uses it, and the definition is not objectionable.

The Nyahbinghi tabernacle is a circular structure with open windows and doorways,
representing the welcome extended by the Rastafari to the world.  As a
popular hymn goes, "The door is open wide.  Rastafari bids you come.
There is nothing you will have to pay.  Just be wise and step inside,
and do not be like some who would let their chances pass away."

After some more chanting and prayer, the congregation took a brief lunch break. Shephan and I took a short walk and bought some corn porridge and kallaloo, talking all the while about what the scriptures say about religion. Unlike the legalistic, institutionalized religions that Rastas reject for many reasons, true religion consists of showing genuine love and concern for others, we agreed. Echoing my thoughts on the Epistle of James, Chapter 1, verse 27, Shephan told me that the Rastafari frequently repeat the following words in their creed and in their everyday conversation: “Let the hungry be fed, the naked clothed, the sick nourished, the aged protected, and the infants cared for.” These words assured me that I was among kindred spirits, for sure; but they also set the stage for the unexpected turn of events we found upon our return to the tabernacle.

With typical Jamaican hospitality, a member of the congregation greeted me with a vegetable sandwich, and although I was already full, I could not refuse it. But while I ate it, another man approached me with a request. One of the bredren had been bitten by a scorpion the day before, and at this point he was in need of immediate medical attention. Very few who were present owned a car, and those who did either had to stay to fulfill their duties at the tabernacle, or perhaps preferred not to drive on the Sabbath. I explained to them that I had less than a day’s experience on the left side of the road, but I would be more than glad to take the man to the hospital. When I saw this man shaking and sweating, and I heard that the nearest hospital was at least a half hour away, I hesitated no further, and I lost any sense of disappointment I may have briefly had over the fact that I would miss the rest of the Sabbath worship. I tried to keep up with conversation in the car with Shephan and another man who sat in the back with the suffering bredren. But while it may have been an interesting reasoning about my purpose on the island, or the subject matter of the morning readings, I could focus on very little besides the winding roads and the heavy breathing and moaning of the man behind me.

The man and his friend went into the emergency room while Shephan and I remained in the car, listened to his album of Nyahbinghi chants, and reasoned on a variety of subjects for about two hours. When the second man finally came back out, he told us that it had been a very close call, but the poisoned man would be okay. He would have to stay overnight, hooked up to an IV; but he would be able to return back to the camp sometime the following day. We all breathed a sigh of relief and returned back to the Nyahbinghi center shortly after sunset. A few people were still near the tabernacle, or possibly approached us when my car was spotted, to check on the status of their friend. They thanked me for helping their friend, and one of them showed a great deal of interest in being an interviewee whenever I had the chance to return. He told me he was a reggae musician, and that if I had enough time, I should come to his place to hear some of his recordings. I had to wrap up the conversation because Shephan was anxious to go home, and so was I. But overall, I felt that it had been a great start to my journey into Rastafari.

As the bredren smiled and waved goodbye to us, Shephan said a very encouraging word-sound to me. He told me that the bredren were all very grateful for what I had done for one of their own that day. “You performed a good deed on the Sabbath,” he repeated several times on the ride home. No doubt he had in mind the words of Christ in response to those who wished to criticize him for healing a man on the Sabbath day: 

What man is there among you who has one sheep, and if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not lay hold of it and lift it out? Of how much more value then is a man than a sheep? Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath (Matt. 12:11-13 NKJV).

Before the start of a binghi, a divine service also known as a grounation, the scriptures and
the sacramental herb are placed upon the altar in the Nyahbinghi tabernacle and
blessed with prayers.  The hexagonal altar is adorned with images of H.I.M. Haile Selassie I,
H.R.H. Empress Mennen, “GOOD OVER EVIL” (left), and statements from the Bible
and from Selassie stressing the importance of observing the Sabbath (center).


  1. Thanks for bringing your experiences home to us Ben. Reading your words makes me want to be a better human being, to live the "way of life" as He intended. Patti M.

  2. Thanks, Patti M! My thoughts on culture and religion have evolved a lot over the past year, but the lessons learned in JA remain: "Do Good" and "The hungry be fed, the naked clothed, the sick nourished, the aged protected, the infants cared for."